The Death of Alan García
I asked my cousin how people in Peru had reacted to the death of former president Alan García. ‘García has such a track record as a lying politician,’ he told me, ‘that most Peruvians believe he’s not really dead but faked his own death.’
On Wednesday 17 April, early in the morning, the police came to García’s house in Lima to arrest him in connection with the multibillion-dollar corruption case surrounding the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. García told the officers he would call his lawyer, locked himself in a room and shot himself in the head. He died a few hours later in hospital.
Peru’s last four presidents have all been investigated for corruption. Pedro Pablo Kusczinski (2016-18) resigned over a vote-buying scandal and was recently detained. Ollanta Humala (2011-16), accused of taking bribes from Odebrecht to bankroll his election campaign, is in pre-trial detention. Alejandro Toledo (2001-6), also accused of taking bribes from the company, is a fugitive in the US. Keiko Fujimori, who ran for president in 2011 and 2016, is also in preventive detention, on suspicion of running a criminal organisation to launder campaign funds from Odebrecht.
Clarys Cárdenas, an investigative journalist with OjoPúblico, told me that people celebrated when they heard García was being arrested. ‘Ten minutes later news channels announced he had “harmed himself”, that’s how they put it at first. People were very surprised, and thought it was a trap set by the media so he would be taken to hospital and not jail. After thirty minutes the truth came out.’
By the end of García’s first term as president, in 1990, inflation had reached 7649 per cent. Already facing corruption charges, he fled Peru after Alberto Fujimori’s auto-coup in 1992. He was granted asylum in Colombia before moving to France. He returned to Peru after the fall of the Fujimori government in 2000 and ran for president again the following year, losing to Toledo in the second round. In 2006 he beat Humala in the run-off. Since Fujimori, Peruvian presidents haven’t been allowed to serve consecutive terms. García ran again in 2016 but came fifth with less than 6 per cent of the vote.
In November 2018, he was banned from leaving Peru because of the Odebrecht scandal. He said at first that he would face the accusations, but the next day asked for asylum at the Uruguayan ambassador’s residence. It was denied. In recent interviews, he looked and sounded confused. He kept repeating that there was no evidence against him, and seemed obsessed with his posthumous reputation. ‘I am a Christian,’ he said in his last interview. ‘I believe in life after death. I believe in history. And, if you allow me, I believe I might have a small place in Peru’s history.’
García’s political supporters painted his suicide as an act of defiance, and accused the current president, Martín Vizcarra, of assassinating him. Some newspapers shied away from reporting his death as a suicide. The note he left said: ‘I leave to my children the dignity of my decisions, to my comrades a sign of pride and my corpse as a sign of contempt to my adversaries since I fulfilled the mission I had assigned myself.’ At his wake, García’s 14-year-old son announced he would follow in his father’s political footsteps.
‘Except for the fact García himself can’t be investigated,’ Ernesto Cabral, another journalist with OjoPúblico, told me, ‘I don’t think his death will change anything to do with the investigation.’ In December, Odebrecht signed a co-operation agreement with Peru’s public prosecutor. As part of the deal, Odebrecht must pay Peru $182 million in civil reparations. According to the US Department of Justice, the company paid $788 million in bribes throughout a dozen Latin American countries to obtain major public works contracts over the course of a decade. Odebrecht has admitted to paying $29 million in bribes in Peru between 2005 and 2014. On 23 April, Jorge Barata, Odebrecht’s former director for Peru, continued with his revelations, alleging that García’s aides had been given bribes to ensure the firm would win a contract to build a metro line in Lima.
Last year, when Peru qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, the football was on every TV in the country. ‘It was the same during the investigation,’ Cabral told me. ‘When preventive detention was asked for Keiko Fujimori, Justicia TV, a public channel, was playing in all the streets, in all the restaurants. Their ratings have really gone up. Peruvians used to feel their politicians had impunity … No one is above the law now.’